In the present day, and in troublous times, many protect themselves behind the shield of their ignorance. But the explanation is at hand—they are willingly blind; they shut their eyes amidst the clearest light; for if God considered King Belshazzar without excuse when the Prophet was once presented to him, what excuse can the blind of these days allege?
nterpretation is a matter of life and death. The ability to discern and understand signs has always been one of humankind’s most precious skills. “Red skies at night, sailor’s delight—red skies at morn, sailors be warned.” Or as when your neighbor’s skin becomes discolored and begins to flake, he needs be sent to live with the rest of the lepers outside of town and commanded to yell “unclean” when he approaches.
But it is not always so obvious. The meat of the rhubarb plant tastes wonderful baked with brown sugar in a pie. Eating the leaf at the top can kill you. Someone found this out the hard way. The sign can be subtle, or rather, no sign at all save to those who know better. The sign cannot be read save by someone who understands the peril of not reading the sign correctly.
There is another kind of sign, acutely more terrifying, as when the ability to discern the sign is no guarantee that one can avoid the doom that is being signified. As when the sign is simply a declaration of truth.
Such is the sign interpreted by the prophet Daniel for its recipient, King Belshazzar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, in chapter 5 of the book of Daniel. A disembodied finger appears at a raucous party given by the king for his vassals. The finger scrawls a few cryptic words on the wall. The revelry comes to a halt. They had been drinking wine from cups stolen from the temple of the one, true, living God. They had been toasting to the gods of gold, and of silver, brass, iron, wood, and stone. But a finger appears and the revelry stops. The finger marks a sign on the wall. The king shakes violently. The king wants very much to have an interpretation to the writing. He wants this so badly that he offers vast riches and vast power to anyone could interpret this sign.
Then came in all the king’s wise men, astrologers and soothsayers. Men adept at interpreting signs. They used all their skills and all their powers, but they could not read the writing, nor make known to the king the interpretation thereof. Then was King Belshazzar greatly troubled, and his countenance was changed in him.
For he could not understand the sign before him. And he knew, certainly, that it was for him. And that it was not good.
But it is not enough to want to read the sign.
Daniel was a man of God, born in the Promised Land yet dragged into exile in Babylon. In Babylon he was conscripted into the service of his oppressor. He was renamed with the tongue of his enemy. He was trained in the schools of the wise men of the country of his enemies. He was commanded to worship the gods of his enemy, under penalty of death. He refused.
Yet Daniel was beloved in Babylon. He was renowned for his wisdom, known even to the queen who puts his name forward to Belshazzar as the man who could read the sign that haunted him. “There is a man in thy kingdom in whom is the spirit of the holy gods,” she tells the king. “He has an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and showing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts.” And so Daniel was brought to the king and the king explained to him his trial. He told him of the ignorance of the other interpreters. He told him of his great desire to know the interpretation. He told him that a true reading of the sign would be rewarded with vast riches and vast power.
Interpretation, the king understood, is a matter of life and death. But it is not enough to want to read the sign. And it is not enough to simply know what the sign means.
Daniel was able to read the sign. His skill and wisdom were indeed great, but his ability to read the sign rightly came from supernatural vision, vision that can only be granted from above.
The only vision, finally, worth having.
Daniel said this to King Belshazzar: “This is the interpretation of the thing: God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. For your pride, your hard heart, your lack of faith in the one, true, living God, your kingdom will be given to your enemies.”
King Belshazzar listened. He heard the meaning of the sign. Then commanded Belshazzar, and they clothed Daniel with scarlet, and put a chain of gold about his neck, and made a proclamation concerning him, that he should be the third ruler in the kingdom.
That night was Belshazzar the king of the Chaldeans slain.
For it is not enough to want to read the sign. And it is not enough to simply know what the sign means.
Tommy Viola is a theologian living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. He was baptized by his Roman Catholic mother in her kitchen sink, then baptized again in the church of his Protestant father.
He looks forward to teaching his godson, Jasper, the Heidelberg Catechism. His first book of poems, pseudonymously written, is entitled Self-Portrait as Jerry Quarry, and is available from New Issues Press. He is married to a beautiful woman. Matrix Reloaded